The Town That Called Me Josephine

At 98, Jo Carlton looks back on her idyllic childhood growing up in rural Swalwell, Alberta.

It was many years before I went back to my hometown of Swalwell, Alberta. My youngest daughter drove me, along with my great-grandson. My childhood home had become a tumbledown shack. The windows were gone, the porch half broken up. The chicken house was only a pile of lumber, the bushes were dying and the lilac hedge all gone. Only my tree was left. How overwhelmingly sad it was to have my daughter and great-grandson see my old home like that!

I Won’t Remember It That Way

I never went back again. I won’t remember it that way. I will remember the high lilac hedge full of purple blossoms in the spring, the sun porch covered with grape vines, Mom’s huge vegetable garden, my Dad’s old chopping block, and, out back, my make-believe roads and bridges, where I travelled in my dreams. I’ll keep only the happy memories. As the old song says, “When that tumbledown shack by the railroad track” was a home. These are a few of my memories.

Swalwell Alberta - Jo CarltonCourtesy Jo Carlton
Josephine had a very happy childhood growing up in Swalwell, Alberta.

Growing Up in Swalwell, Alberta

My first home was a small three-room cottage in Swalwell, Alberta. I was born in 1920 and for 18 years, my home was alive with love, laughter and colour from the surrounding plants and trees. Everyone called me Josephine.

Our kitchen was the hub of the house. Dominating the room was a large black stove that was kept burning all day. My mother’s cooking filled the house with wonderful smells. Flat irons always sat on the stove top ready for ironing, and, in the wintertime, these were then wrapped in towels to warm the foot of the beds. We did not have running water; it was hauled from the village pump blocks away.

A trapdoor with a ladder led down to the fruit cellar. There were no real walls or floor down there, just hard-packed dirt. It was very cold in the winter, and cool in the summer. My mother’s canning was stacked on shelves. On the floor were root vegetables all packed in sand. Remember, in those days, we did not have electricity, so no freezer or fridge. One day in the summer, my mother went down into the cellar and stepped on a lizard. She took a deep breath and took another step towards the shelf where she wanted to get a jar of peaches, when she stepped on another lizard. That was enough for her. She quickly came up the ladder and we did without peaches that day. Afterwards, I was the one to go down into the cellar for supplies. And—horrors—I caught the lizards and fed them to my chickens.

My bed was either in the front room or in an enclosed porch at the front of the house. Early in the morning, I would lie listening to the meadowlarks singing and the grasshoppers chirping. I felt happy and loved.

Josephine Carlton Playing With DollsCourtesy Jo Carlton

Childhood Delights

I learned to stook with my dad on our small 40-acre farm. A machine would cut the wheat and tie it in bundles. It was those bundles that we stooked; eight bundles made a stook. There is nothing more picturesque than a field of stooks.

My mother was a good seamstress. I would pick out a picture from the Eaton’s catalogue, which was a must in a country home, and she would make a pattern out of newspaper. Within days, I had a new outfit.

I attended a one-room school till Grade 8. I have no recollection of what happened in the classroom, yet I still remember recess time. When we played Pom Pom Pullaway, two older boys would take my hands and run with me—I was never caught.

Gas and oil lamps lit our home until I was eight years old. After we got electricity, I remember feeling excited as I turned on the light switch. We then bought a radio. I contributed money that I earned from delivering eggs and from picking potato bugs off the potato plants, as well as collecting gopher tails for five cents each—imagine!

In good weather, all the village kids played Run Sheep Run or Scrub. I still remember that I owned the only softball in the village.

In winter, we would flood a bit of ground and make our own curling sheet, using frozen tin cans as stones. Curling was the social hub of every village. Now I watch curling on TV and was lucky enough to go to the Gold Medal game at the Vancouver Olympics.

I can still remember walking home at night and looking up at the sky to spot the Milky Way, both the Big and Little Dipper as well as millions of stars. We don’t see that in the city now. Soon our little home would appear in front of me, bright and welcoming. The snow would crunch under my feet as I got closer and my mother would always be up waiting for me with a cup of cocoa.

Jo Carlton PortraitCourtesy Jo Carlton
At 98, Jo is still grateful for the wonderful memories.

We moved to Calgary when I was 18, and I became known as Jo. Since then, I have lived in five different provinces as well as Germany for a time. I am now 98 and once again living in a three-room place, one of which is a bathroom—something my first home did not have.

I am now called Jojo for my last chapter, but I will never forget the town that called me Josephine.

Next, check out an incredible essay that serves as a time-capsule of life in the Prairies during the Great Depression.

Originally Published in Our Canada